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2) We had a lot of fun

by Genevieve

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Archive List > United Kingdom > Kent

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Margaret Watson (Nee Irwin)
Location of story: 
Rochester, Chatham
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 January 2006

This photograph is me, Margaret Watson, or Margaret Irwin as I was then, in my Wrens uniform.

Eventually I went in the civil service and then I joined the Wrens in July 1943. I didn’t go very far — I enrolled at Rochester, went out to a holding depot at Westcliffe then back to Chatham.

I was signals. There was a signals office at Chatham barracks staffed by retired signalmen (because the active servicemen were at sea) so we had Commodores chiefly on the signals, who had an excellent second vocabulary (which we learnt to ignore.)

We had a lot of fun, but it was all innocent fun. The messengers went all around the barracks with these signals — there was a Greek camp now they never managed to get the figures from the Greek camp for the amount of food they needed so there was always spare food around — the messengers would often come back with all sorts of goodies stuffed up their jumpers. We would end up eating fried bacon sandwiches at 2 o’clock in the morning!

But we worked hard, and when we were on duty, we were on duty. Signals weren’t allowed to be in the office for more than 20 minutes — which meant they had to be received, routed, typed and distributed all in that time.

At first we were in the tunnel in Chatham, which was all underground. The problem with this was there was a wide tunnel entrance and then the offices went off (like the Churchill’s place in London) - but all the hammocks from the First World War were slung in the drill shed which had a glass roof and a bomb fell on it. Everyone was badly injured so they had them sling their hammocks in these wide passages in the tunnel. When we went off-duty at 8 o’clock the people who were on duty early in the morning were already turning in — the theory was that we would get the tunnel guard to come and escort us out, but we didn’t — we’d go through and caused total confusion as these men were only on shore until they could get another boat, so they were changing all the time and weren’t aware that there’d be wrens scattering about down there.

We used to cycle in, and our cycle-rack was underneath the aeroplanes wing — so we had to duck underneath to get our bikes. There would be a Sentry on guard, most of them knew that the wrens were going to turn up for their bikes, until we got a new man — he said “Halt, who goes there?” We couldn’t think of a response, until finally Joy sparked up “a Wren” — we’d never been challenged before.

After a time they decided not to have us in the tunnel, and there was a swimming baths with a boiler house so they created an office for us above the boiler house. This was a long way from any wren’s facilities at all -over a mile, so we asked Chiefy what we should use for toilets. He was rather embarrassed and toddled off to find out, but said we should use the gym which was just across the road during the day — and use the swimming baths facilities at night.

When we were on night-duty we had to change in to our bell-bottoms, but of course we weren’t allowed to go through the main gates in trousers — unless you were driving a truck then it was different. So we had to go in in skirts, then change — so we went in to the swimming baths to change out of our trousers in to our skirts to go out of the main gates.

Some jester had taken down the notice in the officer’s quarters that said ‘no swimming before breakfast’, so there were all these naked men running around, so we made a hasty retreat!

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